Harsh prison sentences handed down this week in two separate cases involving articles published in local newspapers in Kazakhstan raise questions over freedom of speech.
In one case, a newspaper editor in the northern city of Pavlodar was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of attempting to extort money from the regional governor.
In the other, a civil society activist in the south of the country was jailed for one and half years on libel charges over an article criticizing a local prosecutor. One rights group says this is the first time in six years anyone has been jailed on libel charges in Kazakhstan.
Yaroslav Golyshkin, editor of local Pavlodar newspaper Versiya, received his sentence on October 30 after the court found him of guilty attempting to extort money from regional governor Kanat Bozumbayev, Tengri News reports. The court heard accusations that Golyshkin was demanding money to hush up allegations that Bozumbayev’s son was involved in a rape case.
The woman who filed the complaint was paid $5,000 not to press charges, which is legal under reconciliation procedures in Kazakhstani law, the Adil Soz freedom of speech watchdog said.
She reportedly later gave an interview to Golyshkin. Bozumbayev claimed Golyshkin then demanded a payment of half a million dollars to keep the revelations in the interview under wraps.
In the same trial, Askar Bakhralinov, a former deputy district mayor in the region, was sentenced to 10 years in jail — also on extortion charges.
As ever more people in Kazakhstan get onto the Internet, the government is adopting expanding measures to limit access to websites they deem harmful.
Those efforts have earned the country a demotion in Washington-based Freedom House’s latest online freedom rankings to “Not Free,” down from “Partly Free” last year.
The watchdog found in its annual Freedom on the Net report that the government is increasingly cracking down on independent journalism and online content deemed extremist.
“The government also continues to pass restrictive laws banning certain content online and expanding its powers to shut down communication networks and media outlets,” the report found.
Freedom House said that the most significant cases of censorship target reporting on the Islamic State group. The authorities have routinely blocked not only content released by the extremist organization, such as recruitment videos targeting Kazakhstan, but also reports about it in local and foreign media, including EurasiaNet.org.
But there was also pervasive blocking of material unrelated to religious extremism, Freedom House said. Those included reports about the closure of the Adam Bol magazine, the possibility of Ukraine-style secessionism in Kazakhstan, and a minor ethnic clash in south Kazakhstan in February.
That public unrest prompted authorities to temporarily disconnect Internet services and block mobile telephone networks.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wound up a five-nation tour of Central Asia on October 27 in Astana with the promise of multimillion dollar investment deals and an offer from Tokyo to help build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan.
In the end, however, nothing substantive appears to have come of this leg of Abe’s historic visit to the region.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev said in remarks cited by his office that Kazakhstan and Japan are moving forward with 10 projects worth a total of $700 million. And yet there were no reports of any investment deals actually being signed between the two countries, which Nazarbayev described as “distant neighbors, but close friends.”
Nazarbayev said hopefully that there was Japanese investor interest in sectors ranging from agriculture and transport to chemicals and rare earth metals.
The agreements on the table in Kazakhstan were dwarfed by the $18 billion and $8.5 billion in investment deals reportedly signed in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan earlier in Abe’s five-nation tour.
Astana is eager to drum up investment as it faces an economic downturn, especially with one of its biggest trading partners, Russia, in recession and another, China, facing slower growth. Tokyo appears to be trying to take advantage of those countries’ plight to muscle more aggressively into the backyard of rival Beijing, whose economic presence in Central Asia is far greater.
A young man in southern Kazakhstan has committed suicide by setting himself alight in a gesture intended to draw attention to what he said was the injustice he has suffered at the hands of the police.
The desperate act bears echoes of a similar self-immolation by a street vendor in Tunisia in 2010, which sparked a wave of protests that led to the toppling of that country’s long-term president.
Yerlan Bektibayev, 20, set himself on fire on October 24 in front of the local headquarters of the ruling Nur Otan party in Taraz. The town was the center of much official coverage earlier this month, when it hosted celebrations to mark what Kazakhstan’s authorities say was the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood. Those festivities were designed in part to help shore up support for President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“I have come here because I hope Nur Otan will help me,” Bektibayev said in a video later posted on YouTube. The footage then shows Bektibayev setting himself on fire before running while screaming with pain into the Nur Otan building.
Police said on October 26 that they had arrested people they suspect filmed the video, but did not specify on what charges. The person filming appears directly complicit in Bektibayev's self-immolation and makes no evident effort to aid the young man once he has followed through on the act.
A court has ordered the closure of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent media outlets following a legal battle that has been closely observed by freedom of speech campaigners.
The shuttering of the hard-hitting current affairs magazine follows an appeal by an international organization to Kazakhstan’s foreign minister to intervene over the case to protect press freedom.
The court ruling ordering the closure of Adam (Person), which is known for its gutsy reporting and critical take on President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, was handed down on October 22, Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz press freedom watchdog reported.
The ruling followed the magazine’s suspension in August on a linguistic technicality and was made on the same grounds. The court found that when Adam registered with the authorities earlier this year — after the courts had closed a previously existing independent magazine called Adam Bol — it gave its languages of publication as Kazakh and Russian. The magazine in fact only runs in Russian.
Adil Soz deemed the suspension anti-constitutional, since the magazine was under no legal requirement to publish in two languages.
This time, the court ordered the closure not only of the printed magazine but also of an online version and its Facebook page, where Adam’s editorial team had posted material since the suspension.
Flights transiting the Caspian Sea region on Friday, October 16. (photo: flightradar24)
Kazakhstan's Air Astana and other airlines are altering their flight routes over the Caspian Sea after Russian missiles launches from the sea have created an unpredictable security situation.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific announced that it was suspending flights over the Caspian. “In view of the situation in the region Cathay Pacific suspended all flights over Iran and Caspian Sea since last Thursday until further notice,” the airline said in a statement.
But the announcement by Air Astana, the flagship airline of a close Russian ally, is much more significant. The airline announced Friday that it was changing the route of its Almaty-Baku route. "We are now flying by a more northerly route, in the area of Aktau," said company spokesman Tlek Abdrakhimov, local media reported. The route change would add 15 minutes to the flight time. Flights to Tbilisi and Istanbul could be similarly affected, the company said. The rerouting via Aktau suggests that Kazakhstan doesn't see the entire Caspian as a risk, but only the southern part.
On October 9, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued a safety bulletin alerting airlines that there had been "several launches of missiles from warships, located in the Caspian Sea, to Syria on 06 and 07 October 2015. Before reaching Syria, such missiles are necessarily crossing the airspace above Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq, below flight routes which are used by commercial transport aeroplanes." The agency did not issue a specific recommendation to avoid the sea, however.
Turkmenistan is fuming at suggestions that there has been any unrest along its border with Afghanistan.
The specific target of Ashgabat’s irritation on October 15 was Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who alluded in passing during a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to what he see as the mounting threat posed by Islamist extremism coming out of Afghanistan.
“We know about incidents on the border with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. We need to create an ‘Islam against terrorism’ forum,” Nazarbayev was reported to have said by Izvestia newspaper.
The very mention of Turkmenistan was enough to raise the hackles of the Foreign Ministry in Ashgabat.
“The Turkmen side expresses its profound concern and bewilderment in relation to this untrue statement by the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan about the situation on the state border of Turkmenistan,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Turkmen government seems particularly stung that the source of what it characterizes as idle speculation has come from no less a source than an ostensibly cordial neighbor.
“On the basis of the traditionally brotherly relations between our nations, we hope that the Kazakh government may in future adhere to more objective information when assessing the situation,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Ashgabat’s indignation could in turn provoke bewilderment among observers of the unfolding security situation in the Afghan provinces along Turkmenistan’s border.
There can be no doubt Afghanistan is weighing heavy on the mind of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. It was a major topic of conversation on October 8, during his visit to his counterpart in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov.
Almaty is cleaning up its act as residents have now got a direct line to the mayor via Instagram for reporting problems on the city's streets in real time.
Baurzhan Baybek was appointed in August as a leading light of Kazakhstan's new guard of western-educated apparatchiks. A few months into his term, Baybek’s office brought the administration kicking and screaming into the cyber-age by setting up the akimat_almaty Instagram account.
The page, which has already attracted more than 22,000 followers, encourages residents to post images of problems in the city using the hashtag #akimatalmaty. Concerned citizens have posted pictures of garbage heaps and missing drain covers. In response, the mayor's office has fixed the problems and then posted photos of its work.
Since replacing the old guard mayor, Akhmetzhan Yesimov, Baybek has overseen a more hands-on approach to running Kazakhstan's most populous city. In one notable case, he visited an Almaty children's hospital after pictures of appalling conditions in the clinic were posted on Facebook.
The Instragram account has also been used to publicize city hall initiatives, including the establishment of a dedicated bus lane on the main Abai Avenue and pre-paid tickets for the city's public transport network.
It also harnessed cyberspace to promote a city-wide clean-up day on October 10, which saw students and public sector workers tidying up their places of study and work. The exercise bore echoes of the Soviet-era subbotnik, when 'volunteers' got involved in community service projects on weekends.
Police in Kazakhstan have thrown two activists behind bars on suspicion of fomenting ethnic strife through postings on social networks in which they quoted from an old, unpublished book.
The arrests of Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev – who are vocal online critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, but wield little on-the-ground influence to rally support against it – are symptomatic of the extent to which the authorities in Kazakhstan go to crush even limited, or virtual, dissent.
The two were arrested on October 12 on the basis of allegations of “their dissemination on social networks of information containing clear signs of fomenting ethnic strife, [and] insults against ethnic honor and dignity,” the Almaty police department said in a statement put out the following day.
They are being investigated under a broad charge covering incitement to social, ethnic, tribal or religious strife. The offense is punishable with a fine or up to 12 years in jail.
This is one of the charges under which opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov was jailed in 2012 for seven and a half years after being found guilty of fomenting social strife that prosecutors argued led to fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen.
Police did not further specify the nature of the suspicions against the two activists, but Mambetalin offered a clue before his arrest. Writing on his Facebook page two days earlier, he said they were under attack for citing the writings of Murat Telibekov, another activist who is known for his anti-regime views.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets with Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan in Astana. (photo: akorda.kz)
China is giving new military aid to Kazakhstan and the two countries are planning joint special forces training, as Beijing slowly but steadily increases its military presence in Central Asia.
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited Astana on Monday and met with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kazakhstani defense officials. There, Chang announced that China was donating some military trucks to Kazakhstan, according to Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense.
Especially intriguing was the discussion of special forces training: "Training and exchange of experience in the sphere of combating asymmetric threats (training special forces units) is an important aspect of cooperation," the MoD announced. ("Asymmetric threats" is a military euphemism for unconventional warfare like terrorism and guerrillas.) "Kazakhstan is interested in organizing joint events on mountain training, training of military swimmers, actions in urban environments for special forces. In the near future joint tactical antiterror exercises are planned on the territory of China and Kazakhstan."
Kazakhstan has carried out these kinds of training exercises before with China, but it's almost always been within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These exercises appear to be purely bilateral.
The press release from Nazarbayev's office announced that ties with China are "at a new level of cooperation," and Chang laid on the praise for the president: "We consider you to be a great politician and strategist. You have made a great contribution to the formation and development of Kazakhstan, enjoying enormous authority among the population."